Steven Gerrard scored twice as Liverpool avoided an FA Cup third-round scare against League Two AFC Wimbledon.
Gerrard, playing his first game since announcing he would leave in the summer to play in the United States, illustrated the hole he will leave behind.
Liverpool’s captain, who will celebrate his 35th birthday on FA Cup final day on 30 May, headed them in front, then came to their aid, as he has done so often, when they slumped into trouble.
Adebayo Akinfenwa’s equaliser revived memories of the original Wimbledon’s FA Cup final win against Liverpool at Wembley in 1988 – until Gerrard stepped in to restore order with a superb trademark free-kick just after the hour.
It helped to steady Liverpool, whose defence had looked horribly vulnerable under pressure from Neal Ardley’s side, who are currently 12th in League Two.
Irrespective of the outcome, this FA Cup night was a credit to the rebirth of AFC Wimbledon, who started life in the Combined Counties League in 2002 and went through five promotions before returning to the Football League in 2011.
But AFC Wimbledon – like so many teams before them since Gerrard made his Liverpool debut in 1998 – discovered that this is the player who can be relied upon to help the Reds through moments of adversity.
This was another example as he took his Liverpool tally to 182 goals in 696 appearances for the club.
Gerrard took the applause of the visiting fans, waiting to acclaim him followings news of his impending departure, before the game and was able to calm their early nerves with a goal after Sean Rigg had almost given AFC Wimbledon a shock lead with a shot across the face of goal.
Gerrard timed his arrival in the area perfectly in the 12th minute to meet Javier Manquillo’s cross and direct a low header beyond keeper James Shea into the bottom corner.
Liverpool then enjoyed a period of relatively control but, as has happened so often this season, they were undone by the vulnerability of their defence and the uncertainty of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
The Belgian keeper did well to turn over from 10 yards as Rigg threatened again but the weakness in Liverpool’s rearguard was exposed when a long kick from Shea found its way through to the feet of Matt Tubbs, who pulled a poor finish across the face of goal.
AFC Wimbledon’s confidence and threat was growing and it resulted in an equaliser nine minutes before the break.
Mignolet missed George Francomb’s corner, Mamadou Sakho bundled the ball on to his own bar and Akinfenwa was the first to react to poke in from six yards.
Gerrard came to Liverpool’s rescue in the opening moments of the second half when he cleared off the line from Adam Barrett as AFC Wimbledon picked up where they had left off.
And when Liverpool needed inspiration at the other end, Gerrard provided it with a superb free-kick that was in from the moment it left his foot curled beyond the reach of the despairing Shea.
Gerrard was denied a hat-trick by a stoppage-time goalline clearance from Callum Kennedy as Liverpool secured a home tie against Bolton Wanderers in the fourth round.